In the late hours of October 23, Craig Clements was grading papers when a colleague in Oakland texted him about a rapidly growing wildfire just north of San Francisco. He texted a few of his students, who jumped out of bed and rushed his way. Together they loaded a radar-packing Ford F-250 pickup with gear and hit the road, gathering the Oakland colleague on their way to the Kincade Fire, which would quickly become California’s biggest blaze of 2019.
Clements, a fire weather researcher at San Jose State University, and his team arrived around 1 AM, driving past fire engines and evacuating locals as they steered toward the blaze. Normally they’d check in with an incident command post first, where officials could tell them where the wildfire might be heading, but the conflagration was still too young and chaotic for such organization. So they drove on, trying to position themselves near but not too near the growing plume, searching for a spot not surrounded by brush or traffic, away from power lines that could fall on their heads. On their map they found a road leading to a vineyard—lots of vegetation, sure, but chock full of water and therefore quite resistant to burning—and turned in, landing a kilometer from a ridge line the fire was burning up to.